The rise of alternative media (or “alt-media”) could not be more perfectly personified by the website Breitbart, founded by the late Andrew Breitbart in 2007. Much like how the launch of Fox News in 1996 represented a shift in mainstream media, with the onset of a new, more balanced, and more conservative-friendly news source, Breitbart was similarly the catalyst of a new era in media as a whole. Not only was it also a Fox News-esque bastion of conservative opinion in an industry otherwise dominated by left-wing “news” outlets such as BuzzFeed and Jezebel, but it arguably opened the floodgates for many other conservative alt-media outlets to rise up as well, just as fearless as Breitbart.
Some may argue that Breitbart’s most significant contribution to American politics and culture was its role in the 2016 presidential election, in which it was widely seen as a major supporter of President Trump’s campaign, and culminated in Breitbart’s chief executive, Steve Bannon, becoming President Trump’s Senior Counselor and White House Chief Strategist. However, I would argue that the website served an even more valuable, if even indirect, role over the course of the early- to mid-2010’s, in the twilight years before the dawn of the Trump Era.
Breitbart launched two very significant, if not polar opposite, conservative political pundits into the mainstream. Both became mascots for the top two sects in the world of young, mainstream conservatism in mid-2010’s America:
Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that, of course, Breitbart didn’t ultimately “create” these men, in the sense that they were completely unknown prior to joining the website. Both men had clearly established themselves in the world of socio-political commentary beforehand, with Shapiro’s numerous books and Yiannopoulos’s work in the Gamergate scandal. However, the fact remains that not only did Breitbart launch both men into the mainstream, making them household names, but their association with each other via the website eventually came to highlight their ideological and methodical differences, first through a friendly rivalry before turning into a full-blown rivalry. This conflict between the two men, originating from one source, ultimately came to define the entirety of the major ideological divide between the American right as it pertains to the rising generation of young conservatives.
Ben Shapiro, Intellectualism, and the Fundamental Conservatives
Ben Shapiro, first and foremost, represents the wing of the American right that are still passionate conservatives in every way possible, from the economy to social issues. Thus, to compare Shapiro to a particular Republican leader or two, he is much more aligned with someone like William F. Buckley or Ronald Reagan rather than a Donald Trump.
A man of faith, Shapiro even retains socially conservative stances such as being against gay marriage, a stance that seems to be rapidly fading with most in the Republican Party in the era of Trump. He rejects the left (obviously), and even generally stands against more libertarian approaches to social issues. Even as the Republican Party has made concessions to the LGBTQ community – due in large part to President Trump’s tendency towards social liberalism – Shapiro has continued to rail against the rise of the LGBTQ community’s influence, repeatedly making the bold declaration that transgenderism is a mental disorder; a scientifically accurate assessment, but still very controversial nonetheless.
He has not shied away from repeatedly criticizing the President and Congressional Republicans on the continued saga of (not) repealing and replacing Obamacare. Claiming that the Democrats have, more or less, won the debate on health care by shifting the metric over to whether or not everyone will get coverage, he has repeatedly argued that only a full repeal with no replacement is the best solution, despite the political unpopularity of such a move.
He also retains foreign policy stances that some may describe as more neoconservative, or “hawkish,” than most intervention skeptics that are on the rise in today’s GOP. He has declared his belief that, on the subject of getting involved in certain conflicts for the goal of maintaining human rights, “where possible, we should push.” On this front, he has leveled some criticisms at President Trump’s more scaled-back foreign policy approach – or at least, “criticized” in the sense that he feels Trump is more like Obama than George W. Bush.
But even beyond Shapiro’s social conservatism and support for more interventionist foreign policies – both of which are on the decline in Trump’s more paleoconservative Republican Party – his reputation is most synonymous with debating. Shapiro can easily be considered the greatest debater that the American political right has to offer, and could even be the greatest debater in the country. He always has a mental laundry list of facts on any subject, locked and loaded for debates or Q&A sessions at public speaking events. He has no shortage of witty comebacks that equally deliver humor and factual rebuttal. And most importantly, he is aware of all the major rhetorical fallacies, careful to avoid them and quick to point them out in his opponents.
With this approach, Ben Shapiro has repeatedly affirmed an intellectual approach to solving society’s problems, both in terms of providing solutions and criticizing others’ ideas when he deems them inadequate. Couple this with a broad set of firmly conservative ideas that more often appeal to the intellectual conservative figureheads of the 60’s – Buckley, Reagan, and Goldwater, among others – and you have Shapiro’s following: Young, socially conservative activists who emphasize the intellectual roots of the modern conservative movement and thus pursue an equally intellectual approach of rhetorical defense of those ideas in debates.
The problem with this approach, of course, is the issue of time marching on. It is easy to point out that, while a number of conservative approaches to such issues as the economy are still ideal, other stances are clearly outdated, such as an opposition to gay marriage or continuing to crack down on marijuana and other drugs, to increased interventionism in foreign policy areas. These ideas have particularly been used as cannon fodder for the left to portray the right as out-of-touch and out-of-date, clinging to such “discriminatory” ideas often out of religious reasons or some other “older” approach that does not work in the 21st Century. This narrative that the right was stuck in the past, clinging to the names of men lone gone, while the left was moving “forward,” played a key role in the success of the modern left with Barack Obama.
President Trump even ran his campaign marketing himself as a moderate in that regard – easing up on such social issues while remaining firmly conservative on the economy and foreign policy – while battling challengers on the far-right such as Ted Cruz. Trump and the GOP leadership continues to battle such conservatives in the Freedom Caucus, in such fights as the Obamacare repeal-and-replace effort. Despite this, these types of intellectual conservatives continue to insist that their methods are the best solution, even as they fall into a smaller and smaller minority in today’s America and today’s Republican Party.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the Culture War, and the Edgy Libertarians
Enter Milo Yiannopoulos, the other major alumni of Breitbart within the last half-decade. Just as Ben represents the fundamentalist conservatives, Milo is self-described as representing “cultural libertarians;” those who are fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and are much more skeptical of interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, it is easy to see why Milo aligns more with “Daddy” Donald Trump rather than someone like Reagan or Buckley.
As a libertarian, he has expressed several views that clearly go against traditional conservatism. He has described the War on Drugs as “a disaster.” He has been clear on his belief that Trump has successfully moderated the Republican Party to a position that is more acceptable to people like him, admitting that he wasn’t particularly supportive of the party until Trump came along. However, he has been opposed to a more hawkish approach to foreign policy, even going so far as criticizing President Trump’s airstrike in Syria. He even, for a period of time, expressed support for reparations to African-Americans, as reimbursement for slavery.
However, for the number of areas where he might disagree with traditional conservatives, Yiannopoulos always maintained that his most important target was not differences among people on the right, but his ongoing battle with the left. His initial entrance onto the socio-political stage took the political world by storm, as his very existence – a conservative and Trump-loving, yet gay, Catholic, British and Jewish man with a preference for black men – defied all of the left’s previous arguments concerning identity politics and their supposed monopoly on minorities.
With this, Yiannopoulos was able to go to previously unheard-of extremes with his politically incorrect rhetoric, both as he flamboyantly described himself and his lifestyle, and as he went after the left’s “sacred cow” minorities, including feminists, Muslims, and Black Lives Matter. And every time he “triggered” the left, their reactions to him would be so unbelievably vitriolic and hypocritical that he only exposed their nastiness even further.
This was especially key for the libertarian movement that Yiannopoulos claimed to represent. As a movement centered on social liberalism mixed with fiscal conservatism, libertarians had often been bound to past spokespeople who were more soft-spoken as they continuously tried – and failed – to challenge the two main parties. Through Yiannopoulos, cultural libertarians finally found an example to follow in terms of adopting more politically incorrect language in order to combat their greatest political foe – the left – while still promoting their “moderate” stances.
But most importantly, this uncensored approach and the subsequent mass backlash that it would face from the left helped Yiannopoulos with another key message that was significant in shifting support away from the left and towards the right. Yiannopoulos has emphasized how, for the longest period of time, the left had successfully won the culture war by painting the right as sticklers for the rules – particularly in regards to an ultra-religious, Bible-thumping approach to social issues – and thus “boring” and “uncool,” with the left seen as the opposite and thus more appealing to the youth demographic. However, by pulling back the curtain on the left’s recent rising trends of creating all sorts of rules for language – including “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” – he was able to turn that narrative on its head and paint the left as the stiff enforcers of arbitrary rules, thereby turning the right into the cool and edgy approach to culture by rebelling against this left-wing totalitarianism. Other than Yiannopoulos himself, nowhere is this more perfectly displayed than in President Trump and his history of Twitter controversies.
So therein lies the crucial difference between the Shapiro approach and the Yiannopoulos approach: Whereas Shapiro and his like are more focused on an intellectual approach, bolstered completely by factual defense via debates and rhetorical skills, Yiannopoulos prefers a more simple-minded cultural approach that appeals less to intelligence and more to emotions. This indeed honors the famous statement by the late Andrew Breitbart: “Politics is downstream from culture.” Yiannopoulos and his followers firmly believe that only by changing the culture can one truly begin to fight the left in a more effective way at every level of society. This is the kind of approach that is much better fit for the world of social media, manifesting itself in the ongoing “Meme war” that sees the Internet in an ongoing battle between the forces of the left and the right.
However, this approach is also not without faults. Namely, this cultural tactic is easily susceptible to controversial comments that may cross the line. Whereas the intellectual approach plays it safe by sticking to cold hard facts, and avoiding more humorous and edgy quips, the cultural approach lends itself to certain individuals going too far with their outrageous statements. Yiannopoulos himself fell victim to this when some of his past comments on the subject of pedophilia were unearthed and spread all over social media by a far-right group determined to bring him down. This can also be observed in President Trump, even though he has managed to recover from just about every single controversial statement he has made that would bring just about anyone else down in flames.
Although the two sides fight for the same overall goal of defeating the left, their disagreements – both on policy and on tactic – are so stark that it is understandable why they may be considered enemies. They both fundamentally disagree on the most important aspects of fighting the left. Shapiro maintains a certain level of “values” and moral high ground, while Milo supports fighting as dirty as the left does. Shapiro appeals to intellect, while Milo’s appeals to emotion. Shapiro focuses strictly on the political, while Milo focuses strictly on the cultural. While both can serve their own significant purposes and appeal to their own respective audiences, there is no clear answer as to the question of which one is more important, or more effective.
Even when the cultural and libertarian approach seems to be on the rise in the era of Trump, the intellectual and conservative side will still insist that this is not a path the party – and the country – should go down. The reverse would likely be true if the intellectual conservatives were in power and the cultural libertarians were in the minority. With both crowds currently at an equal level of size, the Ben Shapiro vs. Milo Yiannopoulos divide – and all it represents for the future of the American right – might never be resolved. That is, until it eventually comes to the outcome that Scott Adams says is the eventual final result of any conflict where two sides want the exact same thing: It shall only end when one side completely destroys the other.